Love, war and disillusion make identity indistinct

October 25, 1992|By Anne Whitehouse

THE ENGLISH PATIENT.

Michael Ondaatje.

Knopf.

307 pages. $21. Toward the close of World War II, in the half-ruined Villa San Girolamo in the Tuscan hills, a young Canadian nurse named Hana cares for a man who has been burned beyond recognition in an airplane crash in the North African desert. He is dying without having divulged his name; he says only that he is English. He lies immobile in bed -- "a man without a face, an ebony pool" -- while his mind wanders back to the journey across the desert with the Bedouin who saved his life, and to his desert expeditions of the previous decade in search of legendary oases.

So begins Michael Ondaatje's beautiful novel, "The English Patient," recently named a co-winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. Mr. Ondaatje was born to an old colonial family in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) -- which he described in his memoir, "Running in the Family" -- and now lives in Toronto. He also is the author of three previous novels and three collections of poetry.

In "The English Patient," he subtly evokes and distills the essences of his characters and the landscapes in which they enact their destinies, as he weaves together the eternal themes of human history and identity, love and war, illusion and disillusion.

Hana is also a casualty of the war, having witnessed so many deaths. The news of her father's death in wartime France came to her in the hospital in Pisa, before she arrived at the villa, and she moves through her days in numbed grief.

Hana and her patient are joined by David Caravaggio, a professional thief-turned-spy, who had been a friend of Hana's father in Toronto and a surrogate uncle to Hana. Mr. Ondaatje's readers will recognize Hana and Caravaggio from his previous novel, "In the Skin of a Lion," which was set among immigrants in Toronto in the 1920s and 1930. Now the two characters have been altered by time and circumstance.

Hana has grown up, her adulthood shaped by the horrors of the war, and Caravaggio, once carefree and daring, has lost his nerve, for he has been caught spying and had his thumbs chopped off in retaliation. "When they cut off my thumbs my hands slid out of them without any power," he tells Hana.

A fourth individual surprises them, a young Indian Sikh from the Punjab, Kirpal (Kip) Singh. A sapper trained by the brilliant and eccentric Lord Suffolk in the defusing of explosive, Kip has come to this area of Italy to locate the mines laid by the Germans in their retreat and to render them harmless.

As a Ceylonese-turned-Canadian, Mr. Ondaatje is interested in people who are transplanted across continents. "In a new continent, the past is a shadowy area and the only way [people] can survive is to deal in the present," he proclaimed in a recent interview in Publishers Weekly. The English patient, recalling the vanity of other explorers who sought to name landmarks after themselves, says, "I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from." He identifies with Kip: "international bastards" who together represent "youth judging age at the end of its outstretched hand."

Judgment is also rendered by Caravaggio, who suspects the patient of being not English at all but a German spy, the notorious Hungarian count Ladislaus de Almasy. Primed by morphine, the patient all but admits the identification as he divulges the story of his destructive passion for Katharine Clifton, the wife of his fellow explorer, Geoffrey Clifton.

His personal tragedy is mirrored and contrasted in the developing love between Hana and Kip: "As they grow intimate the space between them during the day grows larger . . . Between them lay a treacherous and complex journey."

Mr. Ondaatje writes from deep within his characters' lives, as he portrays both the blurring of their selves and their inviolable separateness. His prose is mesmerizing and sensuous. He describes the sapper laying a prefabricated bridge under shellfire, "the brown river thin as silk against metals that ripped through it." His language is rich in water imagery, particularly in reference to fire -- "the low candle sprayed its light" -- or to the desert, which, as he reminds us, was once an undersea floor.

Ancient and medieval history are invoked as points of departure or comparisons. "The last medieval war was fought in Italy in 1943 and 1944," Mr. Ondaatje writes. The English patient keeps "The Histories of Herodotus" as a talisman, and among the author's suggestive allusions, Herodotus is the most important -- the novel's patron saint, "one of those spare men of the desert who travel from oasis to oasis," as the English patient says. "What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history -- how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love."

Mr. Ondaatje might be describing his own novel. Almasy and the Cliftons were in fact historical figures whose desert explorations sparked his imagination, and he has entirely fashioned them into his own characters. Throughout the novel, history and fiction are so seamlessly interwoven that to make the dropping of the atomic bomb the event that sparks Kip's blame and flight seems histrionic and contrived by comparison. One wonders why Mr. Ondaatje chose to end his story in this way. This reservation notwithstanding, "The English Patient" is a profound and wonderful novel that continues to reverberate in the mind.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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